Monday, July 9, 2012

The Tuition Crisis, Aliyah and Happiness

Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein recently wrote a passionate piece on his blog about the unintended victims of the ongoing tution crisis: the unborn children, who will never be born, because their parents can't see a way to affordably raise them. His post raises important questions that he doesn't attempt to answer, for good reason. There aren't that many good answers.
Not surprisingly, a number of commenters suggest aliyah as a solution to the crisis, as tuition in Israel is largely paid by the government. I have come to realize that these types of responses just irk American Orthodox Jews who: (a) hate being lectured about aliyah constantly in the blogosphere and (b) insist, correctly, that aliyah won't solve the crisis. Take this comment for example:
I know the aliyahnicks mean well, probably, but anyone shilling for aliyah as an answer to an economic crisis must be either wholly uninformed or looking for company with whom to share their misery.
When you make aliyah, you must do so with your eyes wide open. You must do so with total understanding that you are accepting a far worse economic situation than the one you are leaving. You don’t have to pay tuition for school; this is true. Instead, you earn a quarter of what you earn in North America and you pay double for every good and service you can name. Tuition-free schooling does not offset that.
I’m not advocating against aliyah, but at least be aware of what you’re getting yourself into. Start by grocery shopping on your next visit.
In a way, he's right - but only partially. Salaries certainly are smaller here, and basic expenses eat a huge chunk out of the average monthly paycheck. But I don't at all agree that it's a "far worse" economic situation, especially for an Orthodox Jew. In the end, I think that financially for most Orthodox Jews it ends up being a wash: in the United States, salaries are higher, but you pay through the nose for health insurance and tuition, while in Israel we earn less, but spend far, far less on those two major expenses.
Either way, you'll struggle. But, to my mind, there's a major distinction between living in the United States and living in Israel which can and must factor into the decision of where to live, and that's the issue of happiness. Where will you be happier? The answer, as the vast, vast majority of olim will tell you, is in Israel, for reasons that have nothing to do with religion.
This week's NY Times Opinion section featured a fascinating piece on happiness and income. Normally, we instinctively associate wealth with happiness: the more I have, the happier I will be. But research indicated that this assumption simply doesn't pan out. 
The catch is that additional income doesn’t buy us any additional happiness on a typical day once we reach that comfortable standard. The magic number that defines this “comfortable standard” varies across individuals and countries, but in the United States, it seems to fall somewhere around $75,000. Using Gallup data collected from almost half a million Americans, researchers at Princeton found that higher household incomes were associated with better moods on a daily basis — but the beneficial effects of money tapered off entirely after the $75,000 mark.
Why, then, do so many of us bother to work so hard long after we have reached an income level sufficient to make most of us happy? One reason is that our ideas about the relationship between money and happiness are misguided. In research we conducted with a national sample of Americans, people thought that their life satisfaction would double if they made $55,000 instead of $25,000: more than twice as much money, twice as much happiness. But our data showed that people who earned $55,000 were just 9 percent more satisfied than those making $25,000. Nine percent beats zero percent, but it’s still kind of a letdown when you were expecting a 100 percent return.
In America, speicifically becomes incomes are so high, it's a culturally accepted norm that the more you earn and the more you have, the happier you'll be. So people - all people - Jew or not, Orthodox or not - fall into the income trap of "needing" more in a never-ending pursiut of the happiness that seems increasingly out of reach the closer we get to it. I've written about this before, but it's worth repeating: when an American meets someone new, what's the very first question he usually asks? "What do you do?" Essentially, we're asking her, "How much money do you make?" because the answer to that question will allow me to place that person within our heirarchy of importance. Basically, the wealthier you are, the more important you are. This is just how most Americans think, for better or for worse.
In Israel, while this kind of thinking has crept into society to some degree, people generally don't think this way. They first ask, "Where do you live?" (or to Olim) "Where are you from?", "How many children do you have?" and try to play some form of Jewish geography. One's financial status has much less of an impact on a person's stature within the community, especially when you get away from the mostly Anglo communities (where the attitude is, understandably, still very prevalent). I'm not just making this up. Studies have shown that Israelis are generally happier than citizens of most other countries, including the United States. With all the challenges that Israel faces, these studies are certainly surprising.
Moving to Israel involves many difficult shifts - but this subtle, critical cultural shift is one of the many important benefits of Aliyah that's difficult if not impossible to articulte. How do you explain to someone that they'll care about different things and subtly, but critically shift their life's focus, when they're still living in a different environment? From an American perspective, aliyah seems daunting precisely because there's no economic benefit. "If I struggle here and I'll struggle there, I might as well stay here and struggle because at least I know the langauge." Sounds true enough. How do you explain, then, that while the struggle is real (both for native Israelis and their Anglo brethren), it feels different; it's not as all-encompassing; there are other aspects to life that take on greater importance?
I'll put it another way: aliyah isn't a solution to an individual's economic struggles, but it is a very real solution to his or her "economic crisis," because here, culturally, it's not a crisis. It's a struggle to make ends meet, and to "complete the month." But, for most of us who have found jobs and make a decent living, thank God, there are other, more important things in life than how much money we make.
No, making Aliyah will not solve "the" tuition crisis. But, if you're like most olim, it will solve your tuition crisis. You'll still struggle to pay your bills. But it won't be a crisis.


  1. You left out at least three things: the standard of living in the U.S. is much higher, many people have structured their careers around opportunities that do not exist in Israel, and many people have family in the U.S. So the calculus is not just "struggle here, struggle there, why not live where I speak the language?" It's "struggle here, struggle there, might as well stay here where I can take long hot showers, have all sorts of toys, wall to wall carpeting, two large cars, a single-family house, eat takeout semi-regularly... and I don't need to start over with a different career... and I can be close to family... where I speak the language."

    Now, you may still be right - that despite all of those factors, maybe you'll still be happier in Israel because you will have shifted your attitudes. But it's a much harder sell. Even if there's sound social science behind the assertion*, it sounds like a cop-out (sure, we're poorer and we're struggling, but we've decided to be happy about it!). The ideological reasons to make aliyah - make aliyah because its a mitzvah - are more intellectually honest.

    *These surveys always show people are happier in poor countries vs. the U.S. And people in those countries are always trying to emigrate to the U.S. Maybe they're happier living where they with their current lifestyle, but apparently they want to move here to have a higher standard of living and be miserable. Many Israelis have made that decision, too.

    1. Avi,
      You mention Olim say 'we're poor and we're struggling but we've DECIDED to be happy about it' What's more accurate is 'we may (or may not be) poor, we may (or may not be) struggling... But thank G-d we are so happy with our lives, that we need not measure our happiness by our toys, our cars and our carpeting.

      I'd like to add that you are right that it is most often that one is making Aliyah for ideological reasons though there are a slew of benefits - physical, material and spiritual too.

      In closing, I'd like to ask you to take a look at a post I happened to write yesterday that relates to this:

      Laura Ben-David

  2. Hi Avi,
    I feel compelled to reply to your comment, because you made my point precisely, without even realizing it. The whole point of my post was that:
    Standard of living: Yes, in Israel it's lower, but I really do believe that people are happier and less worried about money because of that fact. The very fact that you're skeptical about how true that is proves my point.
    Sure, we have less toys and smaller cars (and believe me, we do miss our Honda Odyssey - is that how you spell it?) but that's precisely the point - it's difficult to realize to what degree people's level of anxiety and rat-raciness (yes, I made up that term) affect their outlook on life, the choices that they make about work vs. family vs. vacation vs. whatever-else-you-might-want-to-do-with-your-life.
    That being said, your vision of life in Israel seems frozen in a vision of what your life what like during yeshiva in Israel. I can take long, hot showers (especially during the day) should I so choose. Sure, my yard is smaller, but there's no lack of place for my kids to play. And many, many Israelis eat take-out quite regularly. (at least the people that live in the cities.) Moreover, most Olim do not neet to find a new career. I did, because there's not much of a shul rabbinate in Israel - but I am very much the exception. Doctors in America practice medicine here. Software professionals, lawyers, plumbers, marketers - ditto. I daresay that if you yourself tried to find a job here, it wouldn't be precisely the same job - but your English skills, marketing knowledge, and tech savvy put you in great position to find a very attractive job here.
    Again, in all of these jobs you'd be earning less money. But you really wouldn't worry about that as much, as hard as that is to believe.

    Language: Without a doubt, olim are, and will forever be outsiders to some degree. That's a sacrifice and a challenge that I don't deny.

    Family: I can't say much about your immediate family. But you've got plenty of extended family in Israel. :-) And, in every family, someone's got to be first.

    I specfically didn't mention the ideological arguments for aliyah. Those are well known, and I've hashed them out many times in this blog, my shiurim, written letters, text messages, tweets - and will continue to do so in the future. The point of my post was that many people fear moving to Israel because of their anxiety about finances, to which is say (again) two things:
    1. You will find a job here. If you are talented, educated and marketable, you will find work and be able to support your family, fear notwithstanding.
    2. You will earn less money here. But that won't matter to you as much as you think it will.

    Accepting that truly does take a leap of faith.

  3. Also, if you haven't seen this article, it's worth a read.

  4. I've thought about the gallup data before--not so much with respect to making aliya but orthonomics in general. I don't think it is necessarily valid to apply income data for a predominantly American non-Jewish population to orthodox Jews.

    $75,000 a year for a family of two children, sending their kids to public schools (without any concerns for assimilation) may indeed be enough for most non-Jews. Outside of major urban centers this family income may indeed be enough to afford some chatchkas on the side, and allow the family to take moderate, non-lavish vacations.

    Most orthodox families would not be satisfied with two kids, or sending them to public schools. Our standard for a minimally acceptible lifestyle is therefore more expensive as a result. To boot the highest concentration of orthodox Jews can be found in some of the most expensive cities in the country. Thus a family of 4-5 kids can easily result in a major financial squeeze even at family incomes at the 170K level.

    In short I think the income sweet spot is likely to be higher than 75K.

    Some things can be done, however, but I agree it mainly involves shifting mentalities (at least for those who are already making reasonable use of a solid secular education). Weeks when I am more involved with learning Torah (I'm a working professional), I feel relatively more content, even though my financial situation has not changed. Perhaps making aliyah would have a similar effect.

    I tend to not like talking to aliyanicks about this issue, however, because I sense many of them are dismissive, or downright desensitized to some other obvious disadvantages to moving to Israel: the threat of immanent war, having to submit your children to a military draft, having to more or less abandon family members who for various reasons can't make aliyah with you. I think many folks who make aliyah are either at peace with the above, or view it as a kasha on your personal integrity that you would have the nerve to entertain reservations about assuming burdens they themselves freely chose.

    That may be understandable to a degree, but it starts to sound annoyingly holier than thou, and awfully similar to chareidi Jews in the US who dismiss complaints about the financial problems within the Jewish community, based on the fact that they themsleves decided to adopt a lifestyle with zero consideration of fiscal realities, based on personal idealism (e.g. family income should NEVER determine whether or not we have 10 children, etc).

  5. Is it true that people who make aliyah just find that these things aren't so important, or are people who will find that these things aren't so important self-selecting and making aliyah?

  6. Sorry, still not buying it. If you could say, "struggle here, struggle less there" that would make up for the loss in standard of living, family, job/career change, language, and all the **** that olim put up with/culture change. But the fact is, salaries are so much lower and costs so much higher that the calculation is "struggle here, struggle there" even with the savings on tuition and healthcare. You argue that we should ignore that calculus and take a leap of faith that quality of life will be better - despite all the negatives - because our attitude will shift and we'll simply decide to be happier. Riiiight. I guess I just don't have that much faith, especially when I know many people who made aliyah and washed out, and I see all the Israelis here who made yeridah who have no intention of moving back. The aliyah that seems to stick is when done for ideological reasons - understandably, those people decide they're happier.

  7. Michael,

    Agreed. Take that $75K, and add tuition costs, plus what's required to feed/clothe/house a family 1.5 - 2x the size of the average American family, and additional money to cover the tax burden of that income plus property taxes to live in the high cost shul-adjacent metro areas, and you get something north of $200K. I can believe that a family with $350K in income is not appreciably happier than one with $250K - despite the additional money. But a frum family with $150K income is probably closer to the average American family making $40 - $50K with 2 kids in public school living in lower cost areas of the country. Additional income still makes you happier - or maybe just less stressed - until you hit the $200 - $250K mark.

  8. Hey Avi and Ruby! I feel I need to put in my $0.02 (or is that 0.08 shekel) into this. First of all, one needs to forget about the exact amount that one will make in relation to the other country, b/c in truth it is meaningless. Expenses are very different in each country. What one needs to look at is the level that one is at, are you living a standard of living that is equivalent in each country. In America where the average is say $50K (I don't know what it is now, but I remember a few years back it was around $42K), and you are making $125K and its overall purchasing power (of course also a function of where you live in America too), and compare that with an Israeli salary where the average is 7800 shekel, and making 18000 and its overall purchasing power. It's all relative. In truth, I don't see the costs so much higher. I find that some costs are more and some are less, and it tends to even out.
    Number Two, when making Aliyah, one starts at the bottom. And in some fields, they remind you of that time and time again. When people immigrate to the US, they also start low, and over time work themselves up. It's the same thing here in Israel. But also, since the country does encourage moving to it, they do try to help, to give the immigrant an extra boost. Also, there are lots of immigrants in many fields (the country is a country of immigrants), and they remember the times that they had breaking into the various fields, and will be willing to give a break from time to time, if they see somebody promising.
    I have lots more to say, but time to go to sleep :-)...

  9. So what are these new things I'd be focusing on, as opposed to the rat race, once I move to Israel? Your argument works if you take it for granted that anything is better than the rat race, but otherwise you need to explain what these new things that will take its place are.

  10. Dan, you've asked the question twice, so I'll make a couple of suggestions for what you could focus on other than "the rat race":
    1. Your family and children. I don't know if you have a family or children, but if you do, do you think that you spend enough time with them? Most parents do not. What about your spouse? Could you spend a little more time with her each week were you not tied to your desk?
    2. Personal development: If you don't have a chavruta, more time would allow you to get one. Or take a course. Or learn to play a musical instrument
    3. Get involved in your community. Chesed is a good thing.
    Truth be told, I find your question quite disconcerting. Are you really saying that you couldn't come up with this list on your own?


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